My friend had a huge Pitbull named “Sharp” that has bitten a dozen people. One day, I had a message for him that necessarily took me to his house. As I approached, Sharp started to growl. He opened the door and said, “Come in, Father, don’t be afraid of Sharp. You know the old proverb which says that a barking dog never bites.” My reply was, “You and I know the proverb, but does Sharp know it?” Before we could agree on whether or not Sharp would bite me, we must be sure his dog was party to the agreement. In the same vein, before we start legislating where and when or to whom and through whom God can or cannot act, we have to be sure God is part of our agreement and shares in our prejudice.
Today’s readings continue the theme of envy and jealousy but adds a lesson on tolerance and prejudice. You find there the “us” and “them” attitude that people employ when they revise their little prejudice and build walls of separation from others. No one is immune from prejudice—apostle, priest, prophet, teacher, leader, follower, black, brown and white. Prejudice has no color. Has it occurred to you that often north and south, east and west has nothing to do with the direction of the sun but is rather the language of class divisions? Similarly, the colors we attach to people have little to do with actual skin color, rather are emblematic of racial divide. We may thicken the lines in the map as much as we want, yet they will never exist. God made one world with no line-divisions. We ought to loosen our grip on prejudice!
Like Joshua in the first reading, John was concerned that God’s gifts and power went to people who were not “part of us” (Mark 9:37). Joshua begged Moses to stop Eldad and Medad from prophesying because they were not in the tent where God had visited with His Spirit (Numbers 11:28). Religious intolerance is an age-old disease. Recently, the Church started to revise some language that could be perceived as “prejudice” in her teachings. For example, the designation “church” in the Church’s doctrine, “outside the church there is no salvation,” now applies to the actual meaning of the term “cahal” (the people of God), that can sometimes be found in other denominations or religious groups, even if in a lessened or imperfect manner.
Both Jesus and Moses teach us today that God can work outside of our familiar religious structures. This does not imply that structures are unnecessary or unimportant, rather that we should work in genuine humility to make our own religious structure as open as possible to the saving power of God. We must avoid the selfish tendency to exclude others because we think we are more important or own one segment or other of God or His Church.
Similarly, we must be skeptical of those who claim there is only one way to worship God. Some Charismatics can accept only their emotion-laden approach and the Traditionalists tout the Tridentine Mass as the only valid form. When I was the rector of the cathedral, I was told that some people left the cathedral parish because they are offended that Bishop Slattery, according to them, “backs” them when he celebrates Mass. The “Ad Orientem” position of worship is outrageous to them. These individuals shut their minds to anything that doesn’t appeal to their sensibilities, including liturgical style. Also, some were offended because my assistant and I sang the Mass. That, too, is intolerant. Some Catholics go around like delicate souls waiting to be offended. A word by another parishioner, a homily they think is directed at them finds them looking for a parish where they will hear the “Gospel of Platitudes.” We should reject that false irenicism which conjures an illusory peace placing God’s will for man’s salvation second to feeding the human appetite for approval. We ought, each of us, to be mature and sufficiently robust enough to deal with the hurly-burley of everyday life. Our faith is catholic, not catalyst.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo